Zamboni, by Rebecca Makkai. Tin House Magazine, Winter Reading, 2016
What I love most about this fantastic story is Mel, our narrator, a disenchanted, unemployed, lonely and bored mom always bucking stereotype. I mean, jeez, she’s a sommelier! In a small town in Wisconsin where the best restaurant is a sushi bar! Her husband is clearly cheating on her and with the discovery there is no rending of sleeves, There’s zero drama, In fact, she considers his actions her get out of jail free card. Not as a way to end the marriage, but as a way to add swerve and complications to her life.
Makkai seems to have a lot of fun playing out Mel’s desire and strife in the ice arena. Any parent who has spent unceasing hours at their kids’ sport practice knows how brain numbing it can be. Mel, to counter her boredom, embarks upon a flirtation with the dad of a talented ice dancer.
He held out a hand, ungloved and red. His name was Sean. Sean Adler had curly black hair cut close and was, in Mel’s estimation, gorgeous. His whole profile changed when he swallowed, when his jaw muscles tightened under dark stubble.
She said, “I shouldn’t say so, but I find this much more interesting than hockey.”
She heard her choice of words—confessional, intimate—and recognized that she was flirting. Well good.
Makkai is the master of the great scene. She lingers, pushes past where I might choose to leave and so discovers more. Sodden drunken behavior at a party, too many revealing tweets, lies supported by a lab wearing its owner’s FitBit, a UTI, mean kids… the quotidian details all add up to something funny and smart and so much more than suburban gossip. It’s all here. I love this story so hard! (Click here to read the story online. Click here to purchase the Winter 2016 issue of the magazine. Trust me, you won’t be sorry. There are more fantastic stories inside from Antonya Nelson, Jim Shepard and Jo Ann Beard. Plus it’s on sale, 25% off with the code Summertime, as I write this! Yay!!)
Okay, I know …the only thing Italian about this story is the title, and a glancing mention of buttered Italian bread, but the eggplant was so tempting, the tomatoes so fresh, indulge me and this great recipe from this week’s NYTs which I’ve slightly adapted..
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, diced
- Salt and pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- Pinch of crushed red pepper
- 12 basil leaves, plus a few basil sprigs for garnish
- 4 cups peeled, chopped tomatoes w/juice, fresh or canned (I used fresh and did not peel! Neither would Mel!)
- 3 or 4 small eggplants (about 2 pounds), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 pound pasta, such as penne, rigatoncini or spaghetti
- 1 cup coarsely grated ricotta salata (or about 1/2 cup fresh ricotta and 1/2 cup cubed fresh mozzarella)
- ¼ cup toasted bread crumbs, preferably homemade
- Tomato sauce: Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in garlic and red pepper. Cook for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, stir and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and let sauce simmer gently for 20 minutes, until slightly thickened. Taste and adjust seasoning.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Turn heat to low and cover pot until it’s time to cook the pasta. (Here’s where I screwed up and had to send my husband out for the pasta. I had only orzo and a good man!)
- Put a wide cast-iron pan over medium-high heat. Add 4 tablespoons olive oil to coat surface of pan. When oil is wavy, test by adding a cube of eggplant. It should begin to sizzle and brown immediately. Fill the pan with a single layer of eggplant cubes. Turn eggplant with a spatula or tongs and brown nicely on all sides. Lower heat as necessary to maintain an even temperature; if the pan is too hot, the eggplant will burn. Remove cooked eggplant to a paper towel or brown bag to absorb excess oil and continue to fry remaining eggplant in batches, adding more oil as necessary. Season finished eggplant with salt and pepper. (Alternatively, roast the eggplant on a baking sheet at 400 degrees, lightly drizzled with oil, until cooked and nicely browned, about 20 minutes.)
- To assemble and serve, boil pasta until al dente, leaving it a little firmer than normal. Bring the tomato sauce to a simmer. Here’s where I went a little cheese wild. I added about 1/2 cup fresh ricotta, which turned the sauce a pretty pink. I also added about 1/2 cup cubed fresh mozzarella along with the eggplant. Gently stir to combine. Reserve a cup of pasta cooking water, then drain pasta and add to sauce. Using 2 wooden spoons or tongs, toss pasta and sauce, and let cook 1 minute more. Thin sauce if necessary with a little pasta cooking water.
- Transfer to a pasta bowl. Sprinkle with grated ricotta salata (or not) and bread crumbs. Garnish with torn or whole basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil, if desired.
- Serve w/a salad of mixed greens and a glass of bright rose, because it’s summer and because it’s delicious!
Happy Reading! Happy Eating! Happy Summer!